In our Book of Night book review, we venture into a world of shadows and murder with a gutsy con-artist.
I was 13 years old when I first read Tithe, Holly Black’s first novel. The story of a changeling girl living in modern suburban New Jersey and rediscovering the world of fairies that she came from sucked me in, and I have never forgotten the feeling of grit and teen angst and dark magic. It was my first foray into urban fantasy. Twenty years later (which feels fantasy-level surreal to say), I got to delve back into the world of magic and mundane with Black’s first adult novel, Book of Night.
Charlie Hall has a talent for trouble; she is a skilled thief and con-artist, but a string of bad decisions and terrible relationships have led her to leave her life of crime. She bartends at a seedy club, but her old life still lingers in the periphery—she is never far from the world of the gloamists, magicians with sentient shadows that can do their bidding.
Shadow magic only recently became common knowledge, because, of course, the internet. Until grimoires and magical texts started circulating online, the gloamists were relatively secret, hiding their work for centuries. In Charlie’s day, gloamists are well-known, used to decoratively alter the shadows of celebrities or for more nefarious purposes like spying and shadow-stealing. In the depths of online chat rooms and message boards, people can share what they know about becoming gloamists. Because of the proliferation of information, the only real way for gloamists to know they have genuine magical knowledge is to possess the original, often stealing from other gloamists. And there was no better pilferer of grimoires than Charlie Hall.
Charlie tries to keep her life together, living with her sister Posey and boyfriend Vince, who seems reluctant to reveal much about his past. But living on the fringes of the gloamist world turns out to be like trying to stay on the edge of a whirlpool, and eventually Charlie is sucked back in. Word spreads of a stolen book, the mysterious and powerful Book of Blights, and a villainous figure from Charlie’s past will do anything to get it. With shadow assassins and murderous blights on the loose, and lies and secrets every way she turns, Charlie is on the clock to figure out the truth, and to stay alive in the meantime.
Book of Night is compulsively readable, the many mysteries and signature Holly Black twists kept me going chapter after chapter, desperate to know what would happen next. Set against the university towns of Massachusetts and Connecticut, Charlie’s world is filled with faded glamour and everyday grubbiness, cheap meals and lots of booze and dirty laundry. It feels like a world that could be right around the corner from ours, where Venmo and NFTs are as real as a secret library filled with antique spell books. Posey Hall does tarot readings over Zoom. Vince works an under-the-table job cleaning crime scenes, and also mysteriously has no shadow.
One of my favorite elements of Book of Night was the relationship between Charlie and Vince, her shadowless boyfriend. Instead of spending most of the book wondering if the two love interests will get together, we get to watch their dynamic, how they work together and how their secrets and defense mechanisms clash with their affection and their desire to care for each other.
I absolutely have to mention in this Book of Night book review that Charlie Hall is canonically a size 14. In a genre that can feel rife with waifish, pixie-like heroines, it was an absolute delight to read a plus-size character who was explicitly described as such, beyond a single mention of being “curvy.” Charlie is sharp and witty, relatable with her car troubles and hangovers and days when she’s just trying to get by on too much coffee.
The most interesting element of Book of Night is arguably the shadows themselves. To make someone a gloamist, their shadow must “quicken,” a process that gives it a kind of sentience and also requires it to be fed blood. But the shadows are also sustained by emotions, fed power by the anger, pain, sadness, and shame of the person who wears them, a receptacle for all of the negative feelings and impulses and memories.
It calls to mind Jungian psychology, where the shadow is the subconscious side of the personality, the buried or repressed parts of ourselves, that can take over in moments of instinct or shock. And it is even more interesting that while some characters in Book of Night adamantly refer to shadows as merely tools, to be looked at like a hand or a foot, others name their shadows, give them agency and an identity of their own, care for them.
I hope that this Book of Night book review will compel you to take a jaunt through the shadows with Charlie Hall. Enjoy the breathless thrill of being on a job, picking locks and stealing magical artifacts from under the noses of dangerous sorcerers, on the clock and under pressure. The arcane mixes deliciously with the mundane like one of Charlie’s expertly-made cocktails, and I can’t wait to see what she will concoct next. In the meantime, it might be worth wondering what you feed your shadow self, if you truly know your shadow, and if it is your friend.
‘Book of Night’ was released May 3, 2022
This article was written by Subjectify contributor Megan Lank. Look for more recommendations on our books page.